A PC component maker in a post-PC world

If you had a desktop PC during the early noughties, your first encounter with Creative likely involved sound cards. Back then, if you wanted to upgrade the audio on your desktop, a Creative sound card was often the most affordable, or accessible option. If the name Sound Blaster resonates with you at all, there's a good chance you were one of these people. You may have fond memories of enjoying your burgeoning (and possibly illegal) MP3 collection through it. You might also recall lost hours downloading what you hoped were the right drivers to your specific model, only to find they were minutely, yet critically, different from the best match you found on the support website. My experience was mostly the latter. I'll admit I never thought I'd consider buying Creative ever again. There wasn't anything overly wrong with its products -- just nothing overly compelling about them either.

Back here in the present day, I know I've plugged my headphones into the right connector, because I can hear music. It feels a little subdued though. I look around for a volume control and find it, but it's already up to maximum. I check my phone, and make sure the audio settings are all as they should be. They are. Hmmm. It's at this point I notice a thin sliver of metal visible between the headphone jack and the port. I gently apply pressure to the connector; it clicks into place and -- good lord -- it all suddenly kicks off in my ears. This is a Sound Blaster? In 2014? Oh my!

This is a Sound Blaster? In 2014? Oh my!

Creative is, of course, very much still going. Its catalog of current products, however, still has a whiff of the year 2000 about it -- boyish, overly "gadgety" in appearance. That image is changing, though, and it's immediately evident as music pumps its way into my skull via the company's forthcoming E1 headphone amplifier. The E1 is a $50 unit that's not overly boyish, and only a little gadgety in its looks. What it is, however, is impressive. This little, battery-powered device could easily upgrade most users' desktop audio experiences.

Consumer habits have clearly moved on since I was reaching around the back of my beige PC, trying to blindly locate the 3.5mm port on my Sound Blaster PCI 128 though. The E1's simple, yet functional design feels like a small, though significant acknowledgement of that. And the headphone amplifier isn't the only product heading to US shores that shows the company's new approach. If Creative can figure out how to shake off its old public image, it might just become relevant again. For that, it'll need to start taking itself more seriously.

If Creative can figure out how to shake off its old public image, it might just become relevant again.

For example, slide a tiny switch from left to right, and the $200 Sound Blaster Roar (SB20) Bluetooth speaker will produce random noises at equally random intervals. It's called "Life-Saver" mode. The idea, apparently, is that while driving home alone one dark night, you might have your trusty speaker beside you on the passenger seat, not playing music, but instead startling you with surprise "trombone" or "baby laughing" noises. It sounds crazy, because it is (figuratively and literally). I have the pleasure (and sometimes displeasure) of experiencing many audio gadgets. This includes Bluetooth speakers -- many, many Bluetooth speakers. But, despite my general apathy for the category, despite the expendable Life-Saver mode and despite those cumulative hours cussing Creative while under a desk tending to my PCI 128, I quickly became fond of the Sound Blaster Roar.

It's not without caveat though. While the E1 shows that Creative can do simple, the Roar is a mix of over-thought features and understated design. It's progress for sure. The build quality of the Roar definitely makes it a desirable object. It's easy to use, and fills a modest- to decent-sized room with sound quite easily. But Life-Saver mode (there are, in fact, two Life-Saver modes; don't ask me the difference) isn't the only superfluous functionality. There's a bedtime mode (that gradually lowers the volume) as well as an alarm (as in SIREN, not wakey-wakey) that I'll never use. Ever.

Look past the fancy-dress features, though, and you'll find some genuinely useful ones. The rechargeable battery sets it free from outlets and can also charge your phone. You can also play music from, and record directly onto (via the mic, aux and Bluetooth inputs) microSD cards. There's even an option to have two devices connected via Bluetooth at the same time. That's not bad. You can also plug your PC into it directly, or use it as a hands-free device with your phone. Vitally, there's support for higher-quality audio codecs such as aptX. None of these features is necessarily revolutionary on its own, but they're all there, and out of sight, neatly tucked around the back for the most part. Some of them are features you won't find on pricier, big-name competitors. As much as the younger version of me wants to dislike the product, it's hard to ignore that the company is at least trying to adapt.

As much as the younger version of me wants to dislike the product, it's hard to ignore that the company is at least trying to adapt.

I plug another set of headphones into the E1. As a much more expensive set, the different impedance makes them much quieter. Or it doesn't. Once again, I really need to force the connector in for it to sit properly -- it's very "snug." At least it's not too loose; that'd be much more annoying. The impedance is making a difference, but the sound is still impressive. Robust. Dynamic. As is the sound you get from the Roar (in Bluetooth speaker terms). Both do feel slightly augmented around the usual mid-bass and top-end frequencies (even before you press the "Roar" mega-bass button on the SB20), something that's not uncommon in either category.

Of course, we're talking about a $50 peripheral, and a Bluetooth speaker. These are for kitchens, desks, those times you're out on the move, etc. A little nudge on certain frequencies probably helps it cut through the sound of the copy machine, or traffic noise, right? For some reason, it seems our brains are programmed to interpret such adjustments as audio "depth" and "sparkle" if we're not paying attention, and manufacturers like to exploit this. For casual listening, it mostly doesn't offend. Dare I say, for my particular listening habits, it works?

So, what's so different about Creative in 2014? Why am I easing up on an old foe? It's hard to put my finger on it, but it feels like the company might be finally shedding its dated, old approach and dabbling with a more contemporary strategy. These newest products hint at a new direction, one that is adapting to current user needs and expectations. There's still a tendency to overcook it. Features like Life-Saver mode are distractions from products that show enough promise in their core functionality alone. But, if we're to truly be friends again, Creative, I'd love to see more focus on the strengths (the build and design of the Roar are solid) than the addition of bullet points on the feature list. Somewhere between the E1 and the Roar, there's a sweet spot, and I really hope you find it. But, most of all, I'm happy there are no more drivers to deal with.